Road 96 on PC
The date is June 12, 1996. I’m 1599 miles from the border, have $16 to my name, and my country lies in a state of political unrest. President Tyrak currently prevents citizens from leaving the country, with intense border control following a devastating terrorist attack back in 1986. Florres, his opposition, will tear down the wall, opening up the borders again and giving the people of the country the freedom to travel as they see fit. Determined to be free from this divided country, I set my sights on Road 96, the final road leading to the intimidating wall that runs the length of the border.
Road 96 is a 3D procedural narrative adventure, which sees you assuming control of teenagers who embark on an epic cross-country trip, meeting a diverse cast of characters, and getting tangled up in their own personal quests, trials, and tribulations along the way. The way your road trip pans out, the modes of transport you take, and whether or not you even make it across the border all lies in your hands and the choices you make along the way.
Your task, then, is fairly straightforward: help as many of these unnamed teenage characters get across the border successfully. Each time one teenager’s journey ends — be it successful or not — you’ll begin another, up until the Election Day looming just a few months later after the beginning of the game.
This political backdrop is a prominent fixture of the world. The entire country is divided and everyone you meet will have a pretty strong opinion about it. As I progressed through the game, the political state of the country became more and more divided, to the point it very much feels like a commentary on modern-day politics.
The era of fake news, of fake democracy, of nations torn apart over domestic and foreign policies. Your trips to the border aren’t just a selfish pilgrimage for freedom, they make a political statement against the tyrannical President Tyrak all of which is reported on the biased news channel GNN by Sonya Sanchez.
As the famous saying goes, however, “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” This rings true with Road 96, as it’s all of the crazy things you get up to along the way and the characters that you meet that’ll stick with you after the credits roll.
You’ll encounter a slightly biased News Anchor who, despite her outspoken and often rude persona, is actually kind of an alright person at heart. A mysterious taxi driver called Jarod whose got a dark and shady past (and present… and probably future), as well as the comedic thieving duo that is S&M (Stan and Mitch, you dirty-minded folk), and a young girl called Zoe who’s channeling some serious Chloe Price (of Life Is Strange fame) energy.
There’s also Alex, the young technological whizz kid, Fanny a police officer with a good heart, and John, the truck driver whose trying to navigate the tricky landscape of love while on the road. Each character has been well-written giving them their own personal traits, beliefs, and ambitions, and you’ll often find yourself engaging in conversation with them while on the road to learn more about them.
I’m not going to dive too much into the stories of each character, as you’re best experiencing Road 96 knowing as little as possible, but I will say that the more you meet these characters, the more interesting they become. You slowly peel away their protective layers to reveal their vulnerable sides; even the unhinged taxi driver Jarod had moments where I felt for the guy.
The only slight gripe I did have with the writing was whenever I encountered one of these characters, they’d often awkwardly ask me if I wanted to ask them a question. Given the rest of the writing feels so natural and casual, these really stand out as staged moments. I mean, would a bank robber ever casually ask if you had a question for them mere minutes before you help them pull off a robbery? No, yet, for some reason, they do.
It’s these random activities you get dragged into that’ll almost certainly have you helping them out in the form of mini-games.
In my preview, I spoke about how I launched cash out the back of a motorbike sidecar to get the police off Stan and Mitch’s back. In another scenario, I was playing a game of PWONG (the game’s version of Pong) with Alex, while in another, I had to help keep John awake by making him his favorite drink in the back of his cabin.
These mini-games help mix up the gameplay a bit, but they’re all rather simple and, after a few runs to the border with different characters, start to feel very repetitive. These aren’t always the only thing you’ll do during each stage of your trip, though.
Sometimes you’ll be given free rein to roam around a truck stop, motel, political rally, or little settlement in the middle of nowhere. You can search your surroundings for food, water, or shelter to keep your ‘health gauge’ topped up (failing to do so results in you dying), or cash for a cab, bus, or just in case you need it for whatever reason further down the road.
Help out a character in certain scenarios, and they’ll award you with an ability you’ll keep for every future trip to the border you take (how the teenagers passed said items onto the next, I don’t know). These open up new avenues to tackle certain scenarios, such as a lockpick which can be used to get into private staff rooms so you can swipe their cash, food, and drink to keep you alive on the journey that lies ahead, or learning how to hack open keypad locks and safes.
Even outside of these mini-games, the conversations you have with the characters make a difference to the world and people around you. These seem menial to begin with, but as you progress, you’ll reach major decisions for each character that’ll ultimately determine their fate and which ending you’ll get. It forces you to pay attention and really engage with each conversation you have. You never know how a dialogue option could impact your character or the world around you.
The real pull here is the sense of mystery and wonder that you start your road trip within Road 96. You don’t know what characters you’ll meet, nor what they’ll have you do, or what kind of mess they’ve got themselves involved in. Developer Digixart makes a bold claim that “no one’s road is the same,” and while that is partially true, the game wasn’t quite as deep as I’d hoped for.
In trailers leading up to the game’s launch, it was suggested that there were thousands of different ‘trips’ to take. Different scenarios you’d find yourself in with these various characters, depending on the choices you made. This is partially true, but after hopping into the New Game + mode, it didn’t take long for two scenarios to show up back-to-back in the exact same way they had on a previous run.
What this means is that, once you’ve seen the credits roll in Road 96, it’s highly unlikely you won’t see some repeated scenes and content. Given there’s a New Game + mode to help you wrap up any of the main NPCs stories, this is a little disappointing and somewhat shatters the illusion of the limitless possibilities of embarking on the road.
While I appreciate a decision-based, procedurally-generated adventure game is no small task, I did find myself wishing there were perhaps a few more characters I could have met on my journeys and more scenarios for each character to give me added impetus to really dig into New Game +, or start a new game entirely.
Sure, there are multiple endings to seek out for die-hard fans, but that’s going to require playing another 8-10 hours of very similar (or identical in some cases) content in order to reach. Given the gameplay is focused on conversations and mini-games, this can feel like more of a chore the second time around, as opposed to the sense of excitement and adventure that washes over you on your first playthrough.
Road 96 isn’t just the story of your teenage travelers, it’s the story of the people they meet and the wider overarching political backdrop of Petria. It may not be the prettiest game in the world, with some muddied textures here and there, but the game is so full of heart, so ambitious in its vision for a real CYOA road trip, and it delivers for the most part.
Sure, the mini-games get a little tiresome, and the cast of main NPCs is limited, but over the seven runs I made, there were always fun little surprises. Whether it is an interesting connection between the characters, a hidden secret off the beaten path, or an intriguing revelation in a character’s backstory, Road 96 always offered something new.
A trip, adventure, or holiday always leaves you with memories (both fond and not-so) that’ll stick with you for years. Road 96 manages to encapsulate this feeling. I’ll never forget one of my character’s untimely demise. Listening to Jarod talk about dinosaurs so passionately or playing Bella Ciao on the trombone with Zoe in a campsite. Concocting some bizarre drink in the back of John’s truck or maniacally cackling at the less-than-flattering news report of Stan & Mitch’s latest escapade. These weren’t the end results of my journey, but mere interludes on the journey, and I’m so glad I got to experience them.
Road 96 is a special title well worth checking out for anyone with an itch for adventure. Its replayability may be limited, but for its budget price tag, this is one narrative-driven, decision-based adventure that almost completely delivers on its ambitious vision for the genre.
Cast of characters is pretty small
Can feel a little repetitive by the end